Delivery driver Owen Lindstrom just thought he would educate people on the concept of "tip baiting" with a TikTok video last month, but he had no idea about the level of polarizing response it would provoke from both drivers and customers of food delivery apps.
"Pretty immediately people got pretty riled up about it," Lindstrom told TODAY Food. "People on the driver’s side are saying you should never do that to the driver, and then people on the customer side were arguing that the food already costs so much money they understood it. It was so intense on each side."
Tip baiting is when customers enter a certain tip amount when they order their food or groceries on a food delivery app like Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub or Instacart and then lower the amount or remove the tip entirely after they have gotten their delivery.
They are essentially doing a bait-and-switch on a driver who thought they were getting a certain amount for a tip and then ended up with less or nothing.
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Lindstrom, 22, a delivery driver from Wilsonville, Oregon, who has mainly delivered for Uber Eats, outlined the practice in a TikTok video of him dropping off people's orders that has been viewed more than 4.8 million times.
"One of the worst things you can encounter as a delivery driver is tip baiting," he says in the video. "Tip baiting is when a customer offers a large tip to get their food faster and then takes away the tip at the end. While it’s good to protect the customer from having bad service by holding a tip over your head, it leaves a big opportunity to screw over their driver with tip baiting.”
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Lindstrom said he has heard from drivers who have been burned by tip baiting frequently, while he has only experienced it once.
"The issue mostly lies within the Uber Eats app," he said. "It says that the tip amount will change, and up to an hour after delivery, people can raise it or lower it. Most people don’t even know you can change it, and 90% of the time there is no issue, but when it did happen, it was super frustrating."
Uber Eats did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY.
The issue became such a problem with the grocery shopping service Instacart in 2020 that the company announced it had changed its cash-out feature so its personal shoppers could cash out their tips 24 hours after they had delivered customers' grocery orders.
Since instituting the change in 2020, there has been an increase in tips overall and a decrease in customers lowering or removing tips, according to Instacart. The company says that virtually all the tips that are changed after groceries are delivered are to increase the tip, not decrease or remove it.
Any customer who consistently engages in tip baiting has their account deactivated, according to Instacart.
Sybil Yang, an associate professor in the Hospitality and Tourism Department at San Francisco State University who researches consumer behavior, sees tip baiting as a miscommunication of expectations between the customer and delivery person.
"So what the driver may think is reasonable or good delivery isn’t necessarily agreed upon by the customer, the driver and the app service," Yang told TODAY.
"If the fries are soggy, it may be absolutely none of the driver’s fault. But that could be, 'Oh, I’m going to ding them for the tip because the fries are soggy.'"
Yang sees it as a responsibility of the apps to help combat the issue.
"Honestly I wouldn’t blame the driver and I wouldn’t blame the customer for either thing," she said. "Frankly, it’s what the app was supposed to do, which is to reduce friction and make the transaction smoother between both parties.
"The app can’t do nothing about this because then they will lose drivers."
If they won't make changes, changes may be made for them by lawmakers. New York City officials passed sweeping legislation in September aimed at protecting food delivery workers.
Included in the bills were the provisions that food delivery apps can’t solicit a tip unless they disclose how much is paid to the delivery worker, and whether or not it’s available immediately or paid in cash. Apps also have to credit tips to workers and notify how much was added and if a customer removed the tip and why.
Yang also suggested a fix like Instacart implemented in which the company is flagged about customers frequently tip baiting in order to remove them from the service.
Commenters on Lindstrom's TikTok video alternately supported the customers or the drivers.
"You should always tip, but these apps that add a $8 delivery fee encourage people to not tip it’s ridiculous," one person wrote.
"Honestly the driver shouldn't see the tip until he has delivered," another commented.
"They should add a feature so drivers can comment on the buyer for other drivers," another wrote.
Some customers claimed that they had to offer a bigger tip just to get their orders fulfilled.
"This exists because drivers abused the power to turn away orders with tips they didn’t think were enough," one person wrote about tip baiting. "Self fulfilling prophecy."
Lindstrom has found that people in less populated areas will offer bigger tips to get their food delivered because there are less drivers. He has delivered in the rural area around Klamath Falls in Oregon and now works in the greater Portland area, which has more than 2.7 million people. He said there is a bigger threat of getting no tip in the city because there are so many drivers.
Having to offer a bigger tip just to get food delivered is a flaw in the system, according to Yang.
"This is what happens where we’re stuck on an absolute tip culture," she said. "It's like you’re bidding for the service. From the service operations standpoint, that’s not good for the customer, and it’s not good for the delivery app, either.
"It’s better if everything is clear-cut. 'This is the delivery charge, if I pay it, my food is going to be delivered.'"
Yang suggested that better transparency in pricing could help cut down on tip baiting, but it requires the apps to determine what is the baseline service and what is considered going above and beyond to deserve a tip. She also suggested locking in a minimum tip amount.
"I’m actually very surprised that this type of flexibility exists," she said. "I always just figured that’s locked in. It never occurred I could go back in and adjust it."
Lindstrom is not against customers having the ability to adjust the tip after the delivery.
"As a general system, I think it works better to be able to take the tip away," he said. "I’ve met a lot of (drivers) who take the lazy way out and are like on their phones while a customer's food is sitting there getting cold, so the customer should be able to take away a $10 tip to lazy drivers.
"It’s a flawed system that they’re pouring billions into, but over time it will slowly get better. There’s no one thing you can change to make it all work."
If there was just a flat fee with no ability to tip, Lindstrom believes companies would see a drop-off in users.
"People won’t pay for the delivery fee when now they could just stiff the driver," he said.
The explosion in usage of food delivery apps since the start of the pandemic also has had an effect.
"The customer should get their food on time, but food delivery is a luxury," Lindstrom said. "Before Covid, you paid the pizza delivery guy and tipped him or you were a jerk. Now the expectations have changed because food delivery became so normal."
Tipping has also become an even more fraught exercise in recent years, whether it's a server being fired for accepting a $4,400 tip, or a customer sharing a restaurant tipping "hack" servers called "insulting."
This story first appeared on TODAY.com. More from TODAY: